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How to survive more than 50 years in business

A few years ago, my husband and I were shopping around for a new car. We’d recently returned to Perth and, with a second baby on the way, were in dire need of a boot the size of a house to accommodate all the paraphernalia that comes with children.

We were aware that a new car wasn’t a great investment. Everyone knows you lose money the minute you drive out of the car yard; there are far better ways to spend $30k.

But you’ve gotta admit, there’s something about that smell of fresh leather, and the feeling you get driving a car that’s in pristine condition (for roughly 24 hours, until there’s banana smashed into the seats) that is hard to resist.

There was never really much debate about where we’d go to purchase our not-so-great investment. John Hughes is a household name in Western Australia, and synonymous with cars.

I remember the fuss that was made of us when it was time to pick up the car, a white Mitsubishi ASX. It was ‘revealed’ to us, tied with a big bow, and the salesman insisted on taking a cheesy photograph of us smiling while standing in front of the bonnet. You know, just in case we ever needed a reminder of the day we put our materialistic desires over our financial nous.

While I sat at the CEO Institute forum last week, listening to 83-year-old John Hughes sharing his lessons in business, I felt a deep sense of respect.

This is the man who built the largest single location motor vehicle retailing company in Australia. A company that has survived in the digital age, where every tom, dick and harry is a potential competitor vis-à-vis carsales.com

So how has he done it?

There were five key lessons I took away from John’s talk. None of them rely on a huge marketing budget or the ability to predict the future. They’re just simple, pragmatic ways to improve your chance of being successful.

1.       Know your customers

Not surprisingly, customer experience was a strong theme in John’s key note. While it may be easier to shut yourself in a glass office and let your staff deal with the customers – the only way to ensure you’re in tune with their needs is to talk to them.

That’s why John takes his own calls, and personally follows up customers that he’s spoken with to make sure they got what they needed.

2.       Know your business

This approach extends to availability to customers and staff within the dealership throughout the day. He walks around, talks to people, finds out what’s happening at the coal face – an approach he coins MBBI (Management By Being Involved).

He also advocates surveying your staff – the man talks sense! – to find out how well they feel they’re being supported in their role, and to gather 360 degree feedback. Corporate culture can make or break a company, so routinely giving people a safe forum to provide feedback on their manager and peers is a sure-fire way to avoid any burning issues festering below the surface and bubbling up to cause chaos down the track.

3.       Fail fast

Make decisions, and make them early. As leaders, we don’t always make the right calls, but acknowledging when we’ve made the wrong ones – in a timely fashion – is critical.

How different the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry might have been, if the bank executives had heeded this advice.

4.       Chunk your time

One of the biggest challenges business owners face is drawing a line between work life and home life. I have personally struggled with this, and as I sit here at 9.10pm writing this article, having started my work day at 7am, admittedly I’m yet to strike the right balance.

John’s advice is to chunk your time. While for him, this means never taking a work call after hours, that’s not necessarily the right approach for everyone.

Working parents of young children might need to chunk their time slightly differently, as we don’t always have – or in this era of flexible working, need – the luxury of being in the office for a solid 8-6pm day. The sentiment, however, is valid. When you’re at home, be present. And ask yourself if that work email really can’t wait till the next day.

5.       Strive to be better

If you’re not growing, you’re dying, as the old adage goes. John says to keep asking yourself: is this all there is?

Behind every successful tech start up, there is a Sun Microsystems. Staying ahead of the curve requires more than just hard work and determination, it requires a thirst for more, a desire to be better – to do more.

If people can benefit from a growth mindset, why can’t companies? 

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Kristen is a highly motivated and passionate researcher with nine years' experience in the market research industry. As Director of CoreData Western Australia, she is based in our Perth office and responsible for business development, client relationship management and project management across a diverse client base.

Kristen has a deep understanding of the financial services industry, strong client engagement skills and is a regular media commentator. Her Perth client base spans aged care, banks, super funds, not-for-profits and utilities.

Kristen is a graduate of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, has a Master of Business Administration (Exec) from the Australian Graduate School of Management, a Bachelor of Arts, Journalism (with Distinction) from Curtin University of Technology and is a fully accredited member of the Australian Market and Social Research Society of Australia.